For a chill time, our readers in D.C. can (and should) check out the ongoing exhibition “Style in Chinese Landscape Painting: The Song Legacy“, currently being exhibited at Freer Gallery Museum of Asian Art at the Smithsonian. This expansive exhibition, consisting of thirty paintings and two objects, showcases the much-revered Song tradition of landscape painting, as well as its enduring legacy that was passed down through the Yuan, Qing and Ming dynasties.
As the Smithsonian Magazine points out, these paintings are also a key to understanding one of the central pillars of elite culture in 12th-century China:
“A time of war and political turmoil, the Five Dynasties ushered in the Song, an artistically fertile era in which many artists were employed to provide the imperial court with palace and temple murals, as well as portable scrolls. Landscape painting had existed in China since the third century; however, Song works particularly celebrated the beauty of the outdoors, and depicted the country’s dense forests, rushing rivers and sky-high peaks and gorges. These paintings eventually became focal points of artistic study, prompting artists to develop variations in composition, ink usage and textured lines and layers. Even though few original works from the Song have survived — the exhibition displays just seven directly from this period, although it shows Song-inspired images from the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties — individuals continued to emulate their approaches and techniques well into later generations.”
Stephen Allee, a curator for Chinese painting and calligraphy, points out that many members of the heavily corrupt Song government would use these paintings as a way to de-stress and ‘cleanse’ themselves: “The government corrupts,” Allee said. “You’re no longer thinking about the Tao, the great organizing principal of the universe. You’re thinking about wealth and power. You no longer have time to go to the mountains to refresh yourself.”
Kirstin Fawcett of the Smithsonian Magazine added, “court figures would instead purchase landscape paintings and hang them on their walls. When they felt their souls growing jaded and heavy from quotidian concerns, they’d gaze at the lush scenes and transfer themselves into the place of their inhabitants — ink-brush silhouettes holding fishing rods, gathering plum blossoms and sipping a refreshing beverage in a rustic tavern.”
Speaking of, what do the Chinese political elite of today do to de-stress from the banality of their day jobs? Well, second thought, maybe it’s better to not think about it.
By Alex Stevens
[Images courtesy of Freer Gallery of Art]